Why do people in high public office like to make confessions? Are they trying to find a little peace of mind by getting that burden off their chest? What are they hoping to achieve? And what should come after their confessions?
These were the questions that came to mind when I heard the confession of Grand National Party Chairman Park Hee-tae. On Oct. 31 at a meeting commemorating the spirit of the April 19, 1960 student uprising, he confessed and apologized that he had failed to participate in the historical uprising as he was “egoistically trying to pass the state law exam.” He said, “When all Korean students took to the streets denouncing corruption and shouting for the government to step down, I was wrestling with the statute books in a rural area with no electricity.”
I do not have much sympathy for confessions. Everyone must choose his own way at a certain point in history. Fighting for democratization during the era of authoritarian rule might seem like the height of virtue, but such was not the case. Some people should have instead jumped into trade, shipbuilding and steel industries. I think what matters were the accomplishments people made after they made their own choice. If a person led a life of his or her own choice and contributed to society, it must have been a significant life. Chairman Park is responsible for evaluating his own life after the April 19 student uprising.
One of the major confessions by a public figure made in Korea’s modern history was that of the former president of Hongik University, Lee Hang-nyong. He was the magistrate of Hadong and Changnyeong under Japanese rule, and wrote many essays reflecting on his pro-Japanese mistakes after national liberation in 1945. He even wrote a novel, “Cheongsangok” reflecting on his past wrongdoings after the student uprising in 1960. He said, “I threatened the residents with the point of a bamboo spear demanding more contributions for the Japanese army when I was the magistrate of Hadong. When I was the magistrate of Changnyeong, I helped Japan by drafting people for hard labor and conscripts for the Japanese imperial army.”
Lee is a leading intellectual who was a jurist, a law professor, a journalist and a high-ranking government official. Through his many academic accomplishments, he became a member of the National Academy of Science. He did not make such confessions and self-reflection just once. He made them throughout his life.
Confessing to a crime may be more difficult than confessing to nonparticipation in an historic event or being a pro-Japanese traitor. Yoo Heung-soo, a former Grand National Party National Assembly representative, was the commissioner general of the National Police Agency from 1980 to 1982, and he retired from politics after serving four terms in the Assembly. Right before his retirement in 2004, he made a shocking confession during an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo.
“I was the commissioner general of police who commanded 100,000 police officers. Yet I distributed envelopes filled with money to voters on street corners in the dark of night, asking for people’s votes,” Yoo confessed. “When I am reminded of what I did, it still makes me blush with shame.”
It was the first time in the 56-year-history of the legislature that a lawmaker revealed the disgraceful practice of bribing voters.
“When I went down to my constituency in 1985, people told me that I had to ‘distribute envelopes.’ They said it was especially effective on the poor. I prepared 40,000 envelopes each with 10,000 won in them. People close to me gathered at an apartment in the area and put the money in envelopes. My wife asked her high school friends in Seoul to come and help. I still feel ashamed when I see her. I could not help wondering, ‘What must she have thought of me when she put the money in the envelopes?’”
The difficult confession by Yoo might have made a small contribution to getting rid of money-for-votes electioneering.
There is a dark period in Korean history that is still waiting for the light of confession to shine upon it. The murky spot is the so-called National Security Planning Agency incident, involving the predecessor of the National Intelligence Agency. It is suspected that during the general elections in April 1996, the ruling New Korea Party misappropriated 95 billion won from the budget of the National Intelligence Service for election costs.
During trial however, Kang Sam-jae, a former lawmaker and secretary general of the party, confessed, “The money was not from the National Intelligence Service budget but from political funds raised by former President Kim Young-sam.”
Kang was found not guilty, but former President Kim has kept silent on this matter ever since. His silence further fanned suspicions on the now infamous New Korea Party. People were waiting for what Kim would say after the court ruling, but he did not say anything. He may be afraid of legal problems that could arise or history’s final judgement on him.
Kim Young-sam’s favorite proverb is, “The righteous road has no gate.” If he walks down the righteous road for historical truth, won’t the rest of the problems solve themselves?
I do not have much sympathy for confessions. Everyone must choose his own way at a certain point in history.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin